Miami's Vice Returns, but Not on TV

While drug enforcement agencies focused on the US/Mexico border, drug lords returned to South Florida

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The latest wrinkle in South Florida's evolving drug trade is revealed by Polaroids taped to a wall in Terminal E of Miami International Airport. The mugshots on the US Custom's "Wall of Shame" are of heroin smugglers - lots of them.

Not only are Miami port officials seeing a dramatic jump in heroin "mules" entering the US here, but cocaine smuggling - the scourge of the '80s - has also returned with a vengeance.

"Our cocaine seizures are double what they were last year," says John McGee, assistant special agent in charge of drug smuggling investigations for Customs in Miami. In the past year, the amount of Customs-confiscated coke jumped from 34,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds.

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The rebound of Miami as a major transshipment point for South American drug cartels, notably Colombia's Cali, is being attributed to a strategic shift in experienced law enforcement personnel and resources to the Southwest during the past five years. Government agencies have been focusing on the US-Mexico border, through which 70 percent of the cocaine found in the US crossed over.

Customs, for example, downsized in Miami, decreasing its staff from 500 to 350. In addition, the Coast Guard has fewer ships to patrol the Caribbean.

"There has been a lot of attention paid to the Southwest border by the government and law enforcement agencies," Mr. McGee says. "Maybe because of publicity, more have returned to their own favorite stomping grounds."

Pam Brown, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami, has a little different take. The DEA puts more emphasis on the organized business aspect of drug cartels. "Cocaine traffickers are just like any other business people. When an area is available, it will be exploited," Ms. Brown says.

Customs officials say that heroin is coming through Miami like never before. Inspectors at Miami International Airport have apprehended about 170 couriers trying to pass through with heroin.

Travelers most often swallow pellets of the drug, hoping to pass unnoticed through Customs. At Miami's airport, Customs officials trained to note signs of nervousness often take suspected body carriers to local hospitals for x-rays to determine if they are carrying the drug. Those that are couriers get their photos plastered on the airport's walls.

Drug trade expands

The influx isn't only affecting South Florida: It is making its way from here to many other places throughout the country - particularly to the nation's youth.

"We're seeing the onset of a new heroin epidemic to a new generation of younger, healthier, and wealthier users," says Jim Hall, executive director of UpFront, a Miami-based drug research group. "This expansion is a result of a dramatic increase in supply of drugs produced here and abroad," Mr. Hall adds.

US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey recently said that "heroin has become a global threat."

In testimony before a US House committee last week, General McCaffrey proposed extending the nation's antidrug campaign with a specific emphasis on heroin. He urged expanded treatment for chronic addicts, and closer coordination between schools and drug treatment agencies to treat youthful users of tobacco and alcohol. He also underscored the need for early intervention with families of youthful drug users.

Local efforts

Drug enforcement officials here are calling for additional resources - in financing and staff.

But while they're waiting, they are turning more to high-tech intelligence-gathering methods to catch smugglers.

Michael Sheehan, spokesman for Customs in Miami, says "there's no silver bullet," but that they are asking for more manpower.

In addition, he says, Customs has a strong research and development program going. It is churning out better x-ray equipment to monitor airplane and shipping cargoes entering the US.

The agency also is focusing on new and better equipment for air testing, Mr. Sheehan says. The new technology tests air samples inside airplanes and ships for microparticles of cocaine.

The DEA has committed over $11 million for domestic heroin enforcement. In South Florida, it has joined with local law enforcement agencies to step up seizures.

It also says it is relying on the latest intelligence-gathering capabilities to monitor the activities of 40 different Cali factions that have set up in South Florida. DEA officials say they use court-approved wiretaps and other "enormously powerful computers" to tap into what one official describes as "Cali factions that are run like Fortune 500 companies."

The administration has pressured certain national leaders, including Colombian president Ernesto Samper, to crack down. But Mr. Samper himself has been accused of accepting campaign donations from drug lords.

Colombia reportedly produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and 25 percent of US purchased heroin.

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